Moscow Witnesses An Information Revolution

WHEN Voice of America (VOA) correspondents reporting the crowd scenes around the Russian parliament in Moscow during the recent coup attempt were trapped on the barricades, they pulled out their Finnish-made cellular phones and called in their reports to their Moscow bureau. The bureau transmitted the reports live to VOA headquarters in Washington, which broadcast them almost instantly by shortwave back to millions of listeners across the Soviet Union.Meanwhile, inside the parliament building, correspondents for Radio Liberty, another American government-financed radio station, were filing reports to headquarters in Munich. Radio Liberty beamed them back to the Soviet Union in Russian and 11 other Soviet languages. Its sister station, Radio Free Europe, broadcast what was happening in Moscow to the Baltic republics, to Eastern European countries, and to 115,000 Soviet citizens trapped in Poland following the Pope's visit there. Also inside parliament, Boris Yeltsin was busy sending fax messages to a friend in Washington, which were speedily made available to the international media. Meanwhile, Mikhail Gorbachev, under house arrest in the Crimea and supposedly out of touch after plotters removed his communications equipment, found some old shortwave radios in the guest rooms of his villa and followed events by listening to the VOA, Radio Liberty, and the British Broadcasting Corporation. Mr. Gorbachev reportedly used another new means of communication - video tape - to smuggle out a message proving he was in good health. One of the plotters' most serious miscalculations was their belief that they could throttle the information flow to the Soviet people and cause them to hear only the inane version of events ("Gorbachev is sick and needs rest") that they put out. The plotters did what dictators everywhere do first. They seized TV stations and tried to close down opposition radio stations and newspapers in an attempt to neutralize a press that had become increasingly independent under Gorbachev. What they failed to realize is that the world is undergoing an information revolution. New and innovative techniques already developed, along with others coming down the line, make it impossible to close off whole countries to the flow of news. It was this opportunity that the American government-operated radios seized, boosting their broadcasting hours and blasting news reports round-the-clock into the Soviet homeland and around the world. In addition to eyewitness reports, the radios interviewed expert s, aired Mr. Yeltsin's speeches that the plotters tried to stifle, and broadcast verbatim President Bush's press conferences. Coincidentally, a task force appointed by Mr. Bush is looking into the future of these radio operations. As chairman of that task force, nothing I say in this column is designed to prejudge the recommendations we may make to the president. But from the events of recent days one fact emerges uncontested: In restoring the Soviet Union to a constructive course, the VOA, Radio Liberty, and Radio Free Europe played a significant role. It was one of their finest moments. This is not to underestimate the courage of the Russian people, whose behavior is another lesson for would-be dictators who seek to set the clock back: Give the people a taste of the freedom they yearn for and it will be difficult to take it back. With facts readily available over shortwave radios and other means of communication, Soviet citizens simply did not buy the unsophisticated propaganda the plotters put out. They resisted, and they triumphed. Nor, despite some twists and turns in implementing glasnost, should we underestimate Gorbachev's contribution in opening up the Soviet press. When there were repressive actions in the Baltic republics, the state-owned Soviet media were made to toe the line, but overall, a new generation of inquiring journalists and more freedom are being tolerated. Ironically, one of the reasons the plotters could not jam American and British broadcasts was because Gorbachev had sold much of the jamming equipment to new independent radio stations for their own use.

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